Representation of marginalised groups has become an important topic in media in the last decade, and autism is no exception. Some progress has been made: we have mainstream TV shows where autistic people are the protagonists and have their own stories. But for representation to actually be effective and helpful, we need many, varied representations of autism.
Because autistic people are different. It’s simply more accurate to show lots of different kinds of autistic people. As the famous quote from Dr. Stephen Shore goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
But that’s not the way TV presents it. Autistic people in media tend to be stereotypes, like the socially-awkward white male geniuses in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory. And a stereotypical character is fine! Some autistic people are in fact like that. That’s why we need multiple different characters so that some can be stereotypical and others can branch out.
Because realistic representation of autism has real-world consequences. Even apart from the emotional benefits it may have for autistic people to see themselves represented in popular media, there is a very practical reason realistic and diverse portrayals matter: diagnosis.
Because autism diagnosis is behaviour-based — there’s no blood test you can use — the behaviour of autistic characters affects society’s understanding of what autism is. A person is more likely to be sent by their family or themselves for diagnosis, and perhaps more likely to be diagnosed by a medical professional, if they align with these understandings.
Yet TV doesn’t reflect the range in actual autistic people; In 2018, a team led by Sue Fletcher-Watson published a paper in which they compared media portrayals to the criteria in the DSM 5 and found that fictional characters tend to adhere much more closely to the diagnostic criteria than do real people diagnosed with autism.
Because it means better writing. If you’re a writer trying to write the only autistic character in media, you may feel under a lot of pressure to please the millions of autistic people in the world and their relatives and friends. That need for perfect accuracy can lead to writing to a checklist — creating a character whose only traits are the DSM 5 diagnostic criteria for autism, blown up larger-than-life for TV.
Writers who know they’re just writing one autistic person, not representing the whole condition, can focus on writing an actual person. And less pressure might mean more stories featuring autistic people, which seems like a plus to me.
Because readers and viewers are different. Some people like to read or watch contemporary stories all about the life of an autistic person. But many people prefer fantasy, or sci-fi, or romance. Including autistic people in lots of different stories means reaching more people.
Because it normalises autism. Having stories that are about spaceships or that just have an autistic character as part of a friend group or family is important. It shows that autism is just a part of life, not necessarily something to be constantly remarked on and goggled at.
Because autism is common. The CDC estimates that 1 in 68 children are autistic. It’s not that weird to have autistic people around as part of normal life in your book or show.